The danger with the medium is straightforward: Facebook is the Great Equalizer. Essentially everything posted on Facebook – from simple food choices to religious convictions, political propaganda to shallow flirtations, insults to philosophical postulations, witty jokes to weighty orations, aggressive advertisements to frank frustrations – is reduced to the level of social news. The page “I love God” is directly juxtaposed with “I love Ice Cream” in one’s profile. One can list “The Bible” and “Calvin & Hobbes” right next to each other as favorite books. One can “like” both “Jesus Christ” and “John Deere” pages equally. There is no delineation between fundamentally serious discourse and light triviality. In a parallel vein, the medium of Facebook has taken people’s lives and converted them into entertainment to be consumed by their online “friends.” Perhaps in reflection of America’s cultural values, one’s vocational standing and educational achievements are listed physically above religious views on his profile. As Facebook visualizes this notion that vocation is more important than religious conviction, a person’s ideology is subconsciously affirmed. All serious discourse is demoted to the level of social news to be consumed. On Facebook, even a message so profound and crucial as the gospel may get lost in the ocean of monotonous drivel.
Many people fail to recognize that every medium affects the message being sent through it. Neil Postman wrote an extensive analysis on this exact topic in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. At first glance, it seems as though Postman holds a blatant aversion to the medium of television. Although this is partially true, I believe his actual aversion was to the ignorance of American society regarding the way a medium affects the receivers’ epistemology. In other words, Postman was frustrated that Americans did not understand every medium affects the message and the way in which the message is to be interpreted by its receivers. Postman rightly claims that truth never comes unadorned (Postman 22). The foundation for Postman’s argument is well grounded; he uses the historical examples of telegraphy, photography and television to illustrate how the medium has affected the message transmitted.
The advance of telegraphy was a monumental accomplishment in terms of technology, but this new technology brought with it a dangerous and largely undetected ideology. Before telegraphy, information was slow in reaching the multitude, but when information did arrive it was generally pertinent to its audience. Only the most important stories were given priority to be transmitted. Newspaper articles of the day were far more localized in content, ensuring at least nominal relevance to their audience. With the development of telegraphy, suddenly the entire world became the context of news. By dramatically increasing the scope of the context of news, telegraphy successfully diminished the potency that had formerly characterized local news (Postman 67).
Concurrent to telegraphy, the advance of photography was also a monumental accomplishment in terms of technology, but this new technology brought with it a dangerous and largely undetected ideology. Before photography, the content of nearly all transmitted information was primarily the written word. Since the time of Gutenberg, the written word dominated the platform of widespread public discourse. Photography revised the perception of information. Just as the meaning of a word peeled out of the context of its sentence is distorted, the photograph in many ways strips away context and presents a potentially unreal depiction of reality (Postman 73). Perhaps equally dangerous was the effect this sudden shift to a visual depiction of reality had upon its viewers. Though the serious thinker knows photographs may lie, the average viewer perceives a photograph to represent reality. Prior to the photograph, people were presented with a proposition in written form, and they could make a decision about its validity based upon reason and intellect. The photograph in some ways eliminated the thinking process and forced people to assume the visual content was reality – whether it actually did represent reality or not.
The advance of television was also a monumental accomplishment in terms of technology, but this new technology brought with it an even more dangerous and largely undetected ideology. Combining the flaws that came with the mediums of telegraphy and photography, television has become one of the super mediums of our day. Because television is so thoroughly integrated with American culture, Americans no longer question how it affects their thinking processes (Postman 79). Essentially Postman’s claim is that the medium of television has turned all public discourse into a form of entertainment. The fact that television entertains is not a problem in itself; the danger arises because the medium changes how its viewers perceive the message that they have been given. Television has presented so much amusement that now every single thing that airs on television is perceived as show business. When television attempts to transmit serious discourse, it is seen as nothing more than further entertainment. Postman summarizes, “No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure” (Postman 87). At this point the question arises, how has television accomplished such an austere feat? It has done so in a significantly simplistic fashion: essentially the driving leaders behind the television industry have played a brilliantly subtle game. They have taken what they believe viewers desire to be and portrayed that utopia on the screen. The viewer sees himself as he or she wishes to be.
Launching off of television’s epistemological power to shift perception, social media has taken utopian individualism a step further. The advance of Facebook was a monumental accomplishment in terms of utilizing the technology of the Internet, but this archetype social media platform also brought with it a dangerous and largely undetected ideology. Before we explore this ideology, a thorough definition of Facebook is in order.
Facebook “is the second-most-visited [web]site, after Google… Well over 30 percent of the two billion people on the Internet worldwide now use Facebook regularly (Kirkpatrick 16). Facebook now boasts over 800 million active users worldwide (McCracken). Although Google had roughly 13 million more unique visitors than Facebook in August 2011, the average Facebook user spent seven hours and forty-five minutes on the site over the course of one month – trouncing the average Google user’s one hour and forty-seven minutes per month (August).
According to the Nielsen Company, Facebook is by far the most used social network in the United States – surpassing all other social network platforms’ usage per month by more than 52.7 million minutes. Americans spend nearly a quarter of all their time online on social networking sites (Nielsen). David Kirpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, agrees with Nicole Ellison’s definition of a social network: “a service where users can construct a public or semi-public profile, articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system” (Kirkpatrick 68). Kirkpatrick also explains how initially Facebook forced users to validate their actual identities by using their Harvard email addresses to gain entry onto the site; in doing so, Facebook traversed new ground that had not been covered by any former site on the Internet. Because people’s identities were validated, users posted more genuine and personal information about themselves. On Facebook everyone has the ability to be a creator, editor, producer and distributor (Kirkpatrick 9).
People primarily use Facebook to view and share pictures, write on friends’ walls, and view friends’ profiles. Facebook, along with many social network platforms, is an excellent medium for networking and activating people. Kirkpatrick explains that a phenomenon he calls “the Facebook effect” occurs when “the service puts people in touch with each other, often unexpectedly, about a common experience, interest, problem, or cause” (Kirkpatrick 7). Ideas have the capability to spread extremely rapidly on Facebook. Unfortunately not all of these rapidly spreading ideas are positive.
A terse example of this is a recent digital bumper sticker that read, “Atheism: The belief that there was nothing and nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself for no reason what so ever [sic] into self-replicating bits which turned into dinosaurs. Makes perfect sense.” Pathetic grammar aside, the saddest part of this grossly caricatured depiction of a very serious worldview is that it spread like wildfire across the cyber landscape of Facebook. Thousands of Theists, mainly Christians, liked and reposted the sticker. My question is simple: if you were an unbeliever reading such a post on a Christian’s profile, what would your first thought be? Mine may be along the lines of how bigoted, sadistic and hypocritical that Christian seems. This is a miserable breach of Jesus’ command to Christians to love people. You must understand that every single person in your friends list is able to see your posts. Unless you have no unsaved friends, this concerns you.
Christians could be more intentional in their use of social media if they understood how the medium affects the messages sent through it. Facebook is meant to be an extension of preexisting real-world relationships.
Although many people do not use Facebook this way, it must be noted that Mark Zuckerberg and the other masterminds behind Facebook originally designed the service to be an extension of users’ real-world relationships. “When Facebook is used as it was originally designed – to built better pathways for sharing between people who already know each other in the real world – it can have potent emotional power” (Kirkpatrick 12).
Social media wields such tremendous power that Christians cannot afford to avoid using it. Although many Christians use Facebook thoughtlessly and carelessly, this is usually unintentional. The problem is that one can send inadvertent messages to people based upon what he posts. Christians are sending unintended messages to both unbelievers and other believers. In regard to the example of the Atheism bumper sticker, an unbeliever will interpret the post as not only an extension of belief held by the one who posted it, but also as the way the one who posts interacts with people.
On the other hand, sometimes Christians are frighteningly aware of how a receiver will take a message they send. There is a growing trend of Christians arguing theological and political positions on Facebook. Obvious examples abound. This breaks one of the primary rules that should be in place for any social network: do not say anything to someone that you would not say to his face. When one begins to use language or tone that he would never get away with in a face-to-face conversation, something has gone awry. Some believers are using Facebook as an avenue to spout off everything they wish they could scream at someone else “in real life.” But social media is to be an extension of real life.
The bottom line is that Facebook cannot replace authentic, real-world relationships. Kirkpatrick wonders what it really means to be someone’s “friend” on Facebook; he notes, “For some, Facebook may generate a false sense of companionship and over time increase a feeling of aloneness. So far there is little data to show how widespread this problem may be, though as our use of electronic media continues in coming years it will certainly remain a widespread concern” (Kirkpatrick 14). (For more on how Facebook affects interpersonal relationships, see Of Friends and Ruined Days.) Facebook was never intended to replace real-world relationships; it is meant to be an extension of them.
There is much at stake here for Christians. We must examine several Biblical teachings that apply to the use of social media if we are to properly use Facebook as an extension of our lives, ministries and relationships.
Relationships are the key to effective ministry. Evangelism and discipleship must be holistic lifestyle endeavors, not merely impersonal memos dispatched via Ethernet cables. Jesus himself instituted a personal model for discipleship and evangelism. Jesus’ example was to teach primarily eleven men, not the masses – though He did so on occasion as well. Even when Jesus did address large audiences, He was physically with them in person. Jesus lived with His disciples, teaching them through His words and His lifestyle, giving them the example of how to love people. He lived life with them.
With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, people began to assume that one must acquire the most possible product for the least possible cost. However, discipleship is not mass-produced. When one attempts to make discipleship mass, he produces something like Sunday preacher telethons. But discipleship by nature is small-scale and personal. Quite simply, a discipler takes a few disciples and lives life with them; eventually the disciples become disciplers and take disciples of their own. Growth naturally occurs. True discipleship occurs within the context of real relationships.
In the Great Commission, Jesus instructed His disciples to go and “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you…” (Matt. 28:19-20). His instruction indicated that His disciples were to go and make more disciples by baptizing them and teaching them the truth that He had revealed to the eleven of them. The mention of teaching implies that the eleven were to live life with their new disciples and to thoroughly explain the person and work of Jesus to them. This was a call to holistic lifestyle ministry.
Likewise, the apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, wrote that he and Timothy “cared so much for you [Thessalonians] that we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8). Paul and Timothy poured out their lives to the believers in Thessalonica. They understood holistic lifestyle ministry.
The Scriptures are full of examples of God speaking to people using other people in the context of relationships. The Old Testament prophets represented God and spoke His truth to the people. God could have instructed Jonah to write a letter to the Ninevites, but He instead told him to physically go to them. Though he did not spend his life there, God still deemed it best to send the prophet physically to them. God also sent Nathan to confront David after his sinful adultery with Bathsheba.
It is not my intent to try to cage God and cast a blanket statement that He always works in one specific way. Obviously God can use any medium and any message at any time in any way He chooses. God uses other means like direct revelation and the written word as well, but He often uses people to minister to other people in the context of holistic lifestyle ministry. The use of social media is certainly an element of holistic lifestyle ministry, but it cannot operate effectively by itself.
With these things in mind, Christians could use Facebook more intentionally by using it for what it was always intended to be – an extension of real-world relationships. Facebook “is a new sort of communications tool based on real relationships between individuals, and it enables fundamentally new sorts of interactions” (Kirkpatrick 12). However, these interactions can only be positive when actual relationships preexist. Serious use of the medium demands this presupposition.
Certainly Christians can use Facebook to build relationships with unbelievers, but this cannot be a substitute for face-to-face interaction. To hide away in one’s Christian bubble and use social media alone to interact with unbelievers is a lamentable and generally impersonal endeavor. One cannot truly understand people unless he interacts with them personally. Stop preaching at people you only know through Facebook. The only way to counterbalance serious discourse like the gospel being demoted to the level of social news to be consumed is to evangelize within the context of a preexisting relationship. If you have not yet discussed spiritual things with an unbeliever in person, Facebook is likely not the best place to start doing so. If you are discussing spiritual things with an unbeliever in person regularly, by all means continue the conversation on Facebook. The same is true for interacting with other believers. Christians can use Facebook to encourage, teach, build up, connect and help other believers, but this cannot serve as an adequate alternative to face-to-face interaction.
There is no sure-fire solution as to how Facebook should specifically be used. Should Christians post Bible verses for status updates? Should Christians post status updates that may unintentionally preach at unbelievers? Should Christians use private Facebook chats and messages in different ways than public status updates and wall posts? These and related questions will find different answers for different people. My best advice is to think carefully about everything you post and to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading as to the specifics. One thing remains clear: Facebook, the dangerous Great Equalizer, is only an effective medium when it is used as an extension of preexisting real-world relationships.
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Kirkpatrick, David. The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. Print.
McCracken, Harry. “Oh, the Humanity. Will Facebook’s Shift toward Data Sacrifice Its Soul?” TIME Magazine 17 Oct. 2011: 70. Print.
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